Ancestral Health and Connecting to Nature: An Interview with Abel James

Ancestral Health and Connecting to Nature: An Interview with Abel James

This is transcript for the podcast Ancestral Health: Reconnecting to Nature and Music for Greater Health, Happiness and Productivity

Topics within the interview:

  1. Origins of the Fat-Burning Man Project 
  2. How Does Going Outside Help Transform Our Health?
  3. Tips for Using Technology in a Healthy Way
  4. The Science of Music in Shifting our Experience
  5. Can Music Change the Way Our Brains Work?
  6. About Abel James 

Origins of the Fat-Burning Man Project

Heather Sandison, ND: Welcome to Collective Insights, I'm your host today, Dr. Heather Sandison. And I am so delighted to be joined by Abel today. Thank you so much for joining me. So I'm always curious, tell me how you got into this business?

Abel James: Well, there are a number of different ways that I think a lot of us got into this, but for me, I was a really sick kid and I grew up in the middle of nowhere in New Hampshire. And so when I was just an infant, I got a really bad temperature that kept going on. And long story short, I became pretty much allergic to every antibiotic out there. And my mom, who was a nurse at the time, didn't know quite what to do with me. And there weren't very good medical centers around, a very rural area. So she actually hit the books and she's a great researcher and became an author herself after that, learning how herbs can actually heal and how these ancient ways of healing have actually been around for a long time and there are a lot of promising things in science that prove a lot to be true.

This ancient wisdom or old wives tale sometimes. People brush it off but... Anyway, I was raised not really in the hospital as much as being covered in weird smelling bombs and taking homemade tinctures and going out in the woods and getting mushrooms. So that was a wacky way to be raised. And then of course being a type A, I wanted to achieve, I graduated high school as valedictorian in three years, then went to an Ivy league College. Was super psyched about that and learned a whole bunch of different things, took on a bunch of bet, got out of school, took a good job in Washington DC as a consultant.

For the first time in my life I had excellent health insurance. So I wanted to use it. And I went into the doctor just about, let's see, I was living in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. And I believe it was every two weeks I was going in, because it was basically all free. I could get my blood work and I could learn how all of this worked. And also I was listening to my doctor who was a little bit soft himself, a little overweight, but telling me, "Well Abel, you've got a family history of heart disease and cancer and all of these various problems over here. And so we want to prevent high triglycerides and high blood pressure and all these other things. And so you have to eat super low fat, and you have to avoid dietary cholesterol and you have to make sure you're eating more whole grains."

And I was already running 20, 30 miles a week. And after about a year of following that advice, I was about 30 plus pounds overweight. My thyroid had crapped out and I couldn't really maintain my body temperature above 96 degrees. I was sweating all the time. I was puffy and I was a mess. All the problems that we were trying to avoid had showed up in my life even though I was in my early 20s. And so I lost everything in an apartment fire and I basically hadn't... It wasn't until then that I looked in the mirror and realize the state of my health because I used to be an athlete before that. And I looked like a 45 year old man who was completely out of shape and just moon shaped face, really pale and I'm just like, this clearly isn't working. My life is a mess. Let's make this a project.

And within a few months, all of the weight had come off. I had a six pack. I was basically transformed in a fat burning man by doing the opposite of what that doctor was telling me to do. And by embracing basically that world of alternative health that I was raised in using a lot of plants and eating a lot of plant foods, but also not being afraid of fat. And it was that combo combined with not over-exercising and making some lifestyle adjustments too that I think were important that really transformed my health back into that example that I wanted to be of a young buck in his prime. You shouldn't feel like you're dragged down by life in your 20s. So I was so mad about that, that I started up Fat-Burning Man, as a blog, started writing about it then quickly a podcast. And here we are just about 10 years later.

How Does Going Outside Help Transform Our Health?

Heather Sandison, ND: Wow. What was the role of nature in that transformation? What's the role of getting outside?

Abel James: Massive. I think because massive because when my health bottomed out, there was a lot of stress in my life. I was working as a consultant during the day, trying to pay off my loans. I was moonlighting also doing computer programming on the side and playing music late at night and on the weekends. And so doing all of those things, didn't allow time for a simple hike in the woods. We'd go out with friends, we would go fishing. We'd go out on a canoe or we'd just go for a walk in the woods. Dartmouth was also in a rural area. That was an important part of why I went there and why I loved it so much. And then in life, I think that's taken away from us. And for whatever reason, we don't believe in recess anymore. It's just perfect for kids. And of course they should go out and play and they should get some sun and fresh air and all that.

But then no, we should be coding all day or we should be getting smarter and doing more. And that's a very Western way of thinking about all of this. And I think it gets us into some amount of trouble. So yeah. Now a big part of my message is to go outside, to not be afraid of going outside. I think a lot of us subconsciously or consciously are, we have a lot of fear going outside, whether it's in nature, there are mountain lions out here where we live up in the mountains of Colorado or in city areas. But man, does it mess us up fast when we don't go outside, when we don't allow ourselves that movement. And just that break.

Heather Sandison, ND: Yeah. Fear of the sun. So many people are told over and over, wear sunscreen, don't be in the sun from 10:00 to 2:00 or whatever it is. And really there's a balance I think in that message.

Abel James: Absolutely. Well, you don't want to get burned. And that's something that wouldn't really have happened so much if we were living in a natural world to begin with, but because you can live in the UK and then vacation somewhere with a ton of sun, on the coast and the ocean, you can go and just get red as a lobster and burn, then you get cancer. And then all of these cascading effects from that. Whereas if you had been, and this is what we try to model and mimic in our own lives, I try to go out with the first morning sun as it comes up, thankfully in Colorado in the West, we get a lot of sun and that's one of the reasons we're here honestly, we chose this place because I grew up in New Hampshire. We didn't get much sun there.

So getting sun in the morning, getting a bit of that base tan so that you can go out and absorb sunlight. It's more than vitamin D it's more than just a mood booster. We can't quantify everything that it's doing. But it's sure a heck of a lot more than just something that you should worry about not getting too much of. It's more important than that.

Tips for Using Technology in a Healthy Way

Heather Sandison, ND: Right. Yeah. I've heard you talk about taking a fast from technology. It's part of what keeps us inside, I think is our phones. We get distracted on our phones or we're on the computer. Like you said, coding or being productive in one way or another, whatever that means for us. And we spend all this time trapped inside, whether it's our cars or our homes or offices, and we don't take these breaks. And we talk about fasting as it equates to the diet. But what about when we were talking about technology and how we use technology? So do you have any hacks for how to bio hack your way out of using technology too much?

Abel James: Yeah. Use passive technology, turn it off, turn off the Bluetooth, turn off the wifi. It's incredible. I have a few EMF meters and around phones, wifi routers and things like that, they go nuts if you just leave them in default mode. But if you turn off the Bluetooth, the cell, then it drops way down lower. You don't get as much radiation from all sorts of different devices. Even this ring has a Bluetooth mode and a lot of wearables at this point. Do, but they don't do that by default, everything is turned on.

So one of the hacks would be make your default off and if you want it on and then justify it and then probably turn it back off, that's what we try to do. Going outside is something that a lot of people who are runners get this, but there's a gigantic mental benefit of doing just long cardio sessions, and it could be walking, it could be exercise, it could even be more intense. But one of the reasons I run is for my mind.

And so if I didn't run, then I would still be going out for that walk on the beach or that... Growing up in New Hampshire, once again, walking the dog every morning and every night, it was something that my parents always did. They still do that. We always have a dog. So if you don't have a dog, pretend that you do and do it as much as your dog would have needed. It's funny that we live in monkey bodies essentially, but we don't think of ourselves as needing to go on a walk, but we always do when a dog is there.

And so if you have a dog and you don't take it for that, that walk, you know exactly what happens, the dog loses its mind. Completely loses emotional control. And that's exactly what happens to you. No matter how old you are, we're all going through this. So you need to appreciate that. And you need to, as an intelligent thinking person account for that, because we're all subject to it. 

The Science of Music in Shifting our Experience

Heather Sandison, ND: So another area of expertise for you. You already mentioned you're a musician and you wrote a book about music and the brain. I am so excited to talk to you about that because personally I have noticed that I am very emotionally influenced by music. And I have to be really careful about what I listen to. And of course my favorite genre is the music to kill yourself too. It's like the David Gray and that whole era. And so it can be really depressing or I can also be very nostalgic. I start thinking about some ex-boyfriend from undergrad. And it's totally not productive, totally distracting. But very quickly going down this path that doesn't really serve me versus sometimes without thinking about it, somebody else turns on music that really gets me excited and pumped and ready to perform with whatever it is that I'm doing, whether it's hanging out with my child or seeing a patient.

And so I'm curious as an expert in this, what your thoughts are and really any insights you have so that I can be a little bit more strategic about using music to my advantage and guiding my patients to do the same.

Abel James: Yeah. There's so much to dig in here. I'll try to do it relatively quickly because this is an obsession of mine because it's been a lifelong.

Heather Sandison, ND: I would invite you to take your time and telling me everything you know.

Abel James: Okay. So your body, in a way, when it hears music, your brain is dancing along, it's reengaging those pathways like you said, that would allow you to feel nostalgic because in the same way that you smell something and then you get a feeling from it because our brain isn't cut off from itself, it's connected. And so music engages with so much of the primal part of who we are and our deep subconscious, this can be used for good or evil. Musak is an evil example. I don't know if people remember this, but it's well known in shopping around grocery stores, shopping malls and things like that. That if you pipe in certain music, people buy less or more and they'll buy lesser more compared to the control. And so when I was an undergrad at Dartmouth, we ran a few projects about what happens in research projects.

So one of the big findings from that, and this probably won't surprise anyone who's experienced it, but you have to remind yourself that if you're listening to something with lyrics, it's going to interrupt any work that you're doing that involves words or speech because of the way that our brain works. It's very difficult to hear something and create something in the same domain at the same time. So an interesting part of the research project was you could listen to music with lyrics in a language that you didn't understand, but you couldn't listen to music that had lyrics with, I speak a little bit of Spanish, so that didn't work. You can't just block it out. You think you can, but you can't.

So that's a big thing. If you're going to be doing any work that's math related, you might be able to get away with it. It's called the phonological loop. What I would recommend is that you make a playlist or find a playlist of study music, music without lyrics and use that for whatever work that you have to do. And that would be cognitive or intellectual work. Now, when it comes to exercising, this is really fascinating. A lot of the fastest runners will synchronize their running and their beats to their steps and use that cadence as they're, almost the majority of how they train. You can also do that with a metronome.

And so finding that cadence is really important in training, not only for the physiological benefit and it makes it easier just to stay at that pace, but also because you get into a hypnotic trance and when you get into that flow, everything's a little bit easier. Your brain is dialed in, so to speak.

So different types of musical work for different types of things. If you're not exposed to them music at a young age, from a bunch of different cultures or music that is high information music, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, all that, but also bebop jazz, or really complex movie scores, things like that. If you're not exposed to that at a young age and you don't really engage with it at a young age, it's missing that window with speech with speaking another language. So you might not with that later in life.

So if you are a parent, try to expose your children, even in a passive way to music from all sorts of different cultures to music that's all sorts of different kinds, diversity in what you're hearing and absorbing and information is really important. And I could keep going on forever, but one thing I'll finish with and feel free to dig in Heather with wherever you want to go, is when you are in that trance, when you are dancing and listening to music, the lyrics matter more because if anyone who's meditated or used a mantra knows how empowering that could be.

The opposite is true. If you're listening to music that has damaging themes, damaging words, violence, and things like that, yes, you could dismiss it as woo woo but there's a lot of science and research that says there is an effect obviously of mimicking what you see and also normalizing things that wouldn't have otherwise been normalized through poetry, books, words, music, all kinds of the same thing. It just manifests in a different way.

Heather Sandison, ND: Do we have an understanding of the science around this? Is it about the vibration? Is it about some signaling? What's going on there that can so profoundly shift our experience just by hearing something?

Abel James: When I was doing a lot of research on this, one of the things that really affected me and illustrated it to me was a mother singing to her child. And the child long before it can understand the intellectual component of what those words mean before it can understand that language, it understands the emotional communication that's happening. So what music does is it engages the same pathways in the brain as language it's got rhythm, it has a tone or an inflection, it has all the different parts of music, the patterns and well, it's called in speech prosody.

So one of the other things that came up in music was studying trained musicians versus non trained musicians, seeing how that shows up. Are they smarter? Do they have different abilities? And one of the biggest abilities that these trained musicians had that non trained or non-musicians didn't have was an increased ability to understand the emotional content of what's being said, regardless of what the actual meaning of those words are.

So anyone who says I'm fine, or hears, I'm fine knows that that could mean a lot of things. And a critical life skill is listening and communication and interpreting what those signals mean. And so there are a variety of studies that point to that fact that you can understand more about the emotional content of a message if you are a trained musician, because you're trained to listen for those things. You're also better able to hone in on, for example, a lot of people who aren't trained in music here, music is a big blob of sound, whereas musicians can listen in and be like, the E flat on the base is a little bit out of tune. And they can hear, that oh bo over there is playing something really interesting. And they can take apart like being in the same room as 40 people having a conversation, you can hone in on those different conversations in a way that represents increased ability compared to those people who don't have that training. 

Can Music Change the Way Our Brains Work?

Heather Sandison, ND: And does this change the way... Obviously it changes what we're interpreting or what we're hearing. But does it change the way our brains work? Do we have differences in say mood or mental capacity? What's different about musicians and how their brains function versus maybe non trained musicians other than just what they hear?

Abel James: Yeah. Well-

Heather Sandison, ND: Do we know?

Abel James: ... that's when the research gets a little fishy. It's not like one-to-one, there are more associations, it's hard to have these things where you say, musicians are great at this and non trained musicians aren't great at this. The way that I prefer to think about this is that we are all musicians, we are all dancers, we are all artists. And it's only recently that in school, all the elementary schoolers are singers or most of them are but somehow we lose that then in junior high and then in high school. And certainly when we go into careers, none of us are dancers anymore. None of us are singers. We're all tone deaf and we can't learn to play music. And for some reason we think that adults can't learn to do the things that the kids can do.

And so what I would encourage everyone to do, whether you're a musician or not is pretend that you are like you're pretending that you have a dog. And try to practice these different domains of your life on most days, because if you're not dancing, if you're not playing and listening to music, I consider those a form of intelligence. And the high school that I went to, it was a private high school and special that way. And one of the things they taught was different types of intelligence. And so anyone who's raising kids and knows how important it is to have that range, to do all sorts of different things, because becoming good at music, for example, or learning how to play scales when I'm doing that as a daily on the piano or the guitar, my voice is very similar to doing sprints when I run up the mountain. And tendonitis is the same whether it's in your achilles or if it's in your fingers from doing these micro movements.

And so the more of these things that you do and engage with, the more that you can win. And there's a lot, especially I know for the people who are listening right now, because so many of them are so smart and specialized that it's tempting to keep doing the things that you're really good at. But one thing that's allowed me to progress in music and in fitness and sports is practicing the things that you're bad at, make that your priority. If you're really bad at dancing or music or sketching or art or writing or speaking, or being in front of the camera or any of those things, do that one that your worst debt just for a little bit. And you'll learn so much in that domain that you're specialized in.

About Abel James

Heather Sandison, ND: That's awesome. So if people want to learn more about what you have on offer, your books, your podcast, where can they go to find out what you've got?

Abel James: The easiest place to find me is And you can look up if you listen to podcasts or whatever channel Fat-Burning Man or Abel James and I should pop up soon enough. So my latest book is called Designer Babies Still Get Scabies, that's at And then there are so many other projects, but if you're a creator, a free thinker, or just someone who wants to band together to do some cool work, then drop me a line. I'll do my best to get back to you.

Heather Sandison, ND: So fun. Abel James, it has been an absolute pleasure to have you today. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me and as always. Thank you to all of our listeners for joining us today. Thank you.

Abel James: Thank you.


No Comments Yet

Sign in or Register to Comment